Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Economyths by David Orrell

When I first took a course in Economics in college as a sophomore, 6E:1 “Introduction to Microeconomics,” I was quite taken with the subject. Unlike my major subjects, history and political science, it was so neat, so tidy. You could plot supply and demand curves and arrive at a price. Of course, there were monopolies and externalities and the like, but those were flies in the ointment of economic rationality. Of course, macro got messier, and by the time I took my third course, Public Finance, I lost my infatuation with the subject. All of what at first seemed so neat and clean now appeared rather messy, not at all tidy. (And I didn’t get as good a grade). As it turns out, the neat and tidy represented a degree of unreality while the messy and frustrating was much closer to reality.

I’ve known and thought for some time that economics, once hailed as the king of the social sciences, was an emperor with no clothes. Okay, that’s unfair, but I will say that it is arrayed in tattered rags rather than regal robes. Over the years, my innate, naïve disenchantment with economics has been articulated by persons more qualified than me to articulate and identify the problems. The “Nobel” prize for economics has implicitly recognized flaws in the discipline by presenting its awards of late to a political scientist (Elinor Ostrom), a psychologist (Daniel Kahneman), and to two behavioral economists, Robert Schiller and Richard Thaler, among other less mainstream, math-oriented recipients.

Thus, with some background in the flaws of economics, and appreciating its importance, I read David Orrell’s Economyths: How the Science of Complex Systems is Transforming Economic Thought (2010). Like many of the most trenchant critics of the economics discipline, Orrell didn't train as an economist. He is a Ph.D. mathematician. Orrell argues that economics is (still) primarily built on an outdated conception based on 19th-century physics and its equilibrium-based mathematics.  Economics became the royalty of the social sciences because of its mathematical models, which often worked well—but not very well if you’re in a pinch. And in fact, we’re almost always in a pinch.

Reviewing the field from a variety of perspectives (equity, happiness, gender, stability, etc.), Orrell finds that the prevailing models of economics don’t mesh well with economic realities. Of course, writing in 2010, he needn’t direct his reader any further back than the crash of 2008 to find an enormous and consequential gap between the prevailing theories of economics and the reality that we all faced. Put simply; economic models depend upon rationality and equilibrium (and therefore) a stability that does not—cannot—exist. Human societies, human economies, especially those in the contemporary world, are dynamic and fluctuating and varied in ways that no simple math of equilibrium or postulates of (presumed) human rationality can capture. Of course, everything is fine on a sunny day, but the theories failed when the storms hit. We now have models for complex systems that can deal more realistically with all of the inherent turbulence of a vast economic system, although not at all perfectly when it comes to prediction. (We need to adjust our understanding and expectations.) We need to deploy these models.

Orrell writes quite well. And while quite sophisticated in his mathematical ability, even a math simpleton like me could follow him. He doesn’t overwhelm us with complexity and math. He writes in a manner that any interested layperson can follow. Orrell’s project follows a path laid down by Eric Beinhocker in The Origin of Wealth (2005) (which Orrell cites and that I’m now going to complete). And Orrell's perspective is also well-represented by writings found at the Evonomics: The Next Evolution of Economics Blog, directed by David Sloan Wilson, a biologist turned economics student. These fellows, among many others, from outside of the formal economics community, are pointing the way to a more sophisticated understanding of economics, one that recognizes the contexts of ecology, sociology, and politics in which the economy is embedded.

By the way, I came to know of Orrell through an essay that he published in Aeon entitled “Economics is Quantum,” which I found quite instructive. He has a book along the same lines coming out early this fall. The article is an excellent place to start if you just want to dip your toe into his project.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

James Hillman on "Prestige" Apropos of Some Figures Today

Hillman refers to "masks" below, and I just couldn't resist
Here are some quotes from the chapter on "Prestige" taken from James Kinds of Power: A Guide to Its Intelligent Uses (1997). Its just seems apropos today, but read for yourself to decide if this is so.

When the idea of office loses its foundation in service, we are left with office seekers who want the external trappings of office for the power they bestow: prestige. And office seekers are a raging hungry pack.

Prestige in psychological language is the vanity of narcissism— to be admired and therewith to shore up one’s shaky sense of worth. Notice that prestige is not to be worthy of admiration or to earn it, but simply to be assured of personal worth by external approbation given by the office.

Recognition from others is part of communal feedback. In part, we always are as others see us. A great reward of power comes from outside ourselves. Prestige, however, wants only to impress, neither to influence, to dominate, to control, nor to have agency of any sort unless it adds to the impression one makes. In fact, the risks entailed by doing something and failing at it may cost prestige and may keep the person who is intent on prestige from doing much at all. When prestige is the motive, the less you actually do, the more likely success. For you have risked nothing that might detract from your prestige. To maintain prestige, job performance is measured mainly in terms of being present among the important players in important situations.

Again we find that the word gives away this secret. Prestige comes from praestigia, delusion, illusion like a juggler’s trick, leading to the meanings of deception and imposture. We have the illusion of power without substance; not charismatic magic but manipulation. So to uncover where prestige is ruling, look for juggling, deception, pomp and trappings, a desperate fervor to seize and hold office, and not much real risk. But it’s power all the same.

How can power reside in shallow, self-centered caution? How can someone without inner integrity be honored with prestige? Answer: by means of the trappings of office, the role of leadership, the stance of authority—that is, by wearing the mask of power prestige employs the power of the mask.

Early cave paintings, aboriginal facial markings, Greek and Japanese drama each show that the mask retains and emanates effective agency. Surrounding the hollow personality of the prestige-driven person lies the archetypal aura of the mask. By means of the mask something more than human is present, a higher drama is being played and greater powers are being invoked. These powers come through the stance and voice and advice of its wearer, enlarging his stature and bestowing importance. Inside this persona there may be no one at home, or only a weak comedian playing the Wizard of Oz; even if seen into and seen through, the person retains a position of power acquired only by prestige.

The main method for acquiring prestige is not the imitation of leadership or authority, but rather having a keen nose for what and who is important. Someone with prestige gathers followers simply by following what’s in the wind, which way it blows, when to trim sails, shift weight, reverse course, take cover. Since they are inwardly empty, they are utterly under the influence of outer forces. Therefore they can sense immediately the matter of importance in the air. His conversation will drop names; hers will remark on events others missed. All along they will indicate how well “up” on things they are and where the “major moves” are taking place.

Hillman, James. Kinds of Power (Kindle Locations 1332-1339). The Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. Original publication 1997. 

Saturday, January 6, 2018

India & the U.S.: Shared Experiences at the Founding

One of the many enjoyable aspects of our two years living in India was the opportunity it provided me to learn more about Indian history. Like all history, Indian history is endlessly fascinating and puzzling, both obscured and revealed by time, and it's the subject of endless debate and more than occasional attempts of kidnapping. History is the neverending story (unless we really muck things up).

Of special interest to me was the movement for Indian independence. I first read a biography of Gandhi in high school after seeing the end of a film about him (no, not the Ben Kinsley-Richard Attenborough bio-pic--I way older than that). Moving to Jaipur that first year allowed me to learn more about Gandhi, Nehru, and the less well-known but quite important Dr. Ambedkar. All three of these leaders were lawyers, and all were educated and trained in Great Britain. Nehru received his education at Harrow, Cambridge, and the Inner Temple; Gandhi trained as a barrister in London; and Ambedkar received Ph.D. degrees from Columbia University in New York (I hear it's a good school) and the London School of Economics, and he trained as a barrister at Gray's Inn. In short, all received extensive educations abroad.

Does this make them somehow less Indian? I think not. In fact, if anything it makes them more Indian, for India is an amazing agglomeration of religions, cultures, languages, and traditions that developed through centuries of intercourse with the wider world, both influencing and being influenced through its long history. As an American, I'm keenly aware of the model that Gandhi's non-violent resistance movement provided to Dr. Martin Luther King's civil rights movement, which was marked by non-violent resistance. Both men drew on a variety of influences: Gandhi on his native Hindu tradition as well as a deep knowledge of Islam and Christianity, the common law tradition, Ruskin, and Tolstoy; King on his native Christian tradition, Gandhi's movement, Thoreau, and the American Constitution.

Indeed, I can't help but note similarities between the founders of democratic, independent India and the founders of the American republic. Both groups were amazingly cosmopolitan in their learning and outlook. While the Americans received less of their education in Britain than their Indian counterparts (travel then was much more arduous), they were unquestionably educated in the British tradition and held significant cultural ties to Britain. Indeed, during the early period of unrest, their desire was for their rights as Englishmen. Both groups turned the highest ideals of the British back upon themselves. Of course, neither group was without fault. Certainly, the legacies of slavery in the U.S. and caste in India create problems yet today. The Indian founders (especially Ambedkar) attempted to deal with issues of caste more forthrightly than the American leaders did with slavery, but the residuals of these evils still create a distorting force field within their respective polities that each nation must continue to work to overcome.

Finally, in addition to their cosmopolitan outlooks and education, the founders of both nations were patriots. Their learning and cosmopolitan outlooks made them aspire to the highest standards for their respective nations. Their love of country--the defining aspect of patriotism--was without parallel. Compare this to the tawdry nationalism--the antithesis of patriotism--that plagues both nations today. Article author Aatish Taseer aptly quotes Nehru: " “Nationalism . . . is essentially an anti-feeling, and it feeds and fattens on hatred against other national groups, and especially against the foreign rulers of a subject country.” Neither nation is now in the grips of a foreign power, at least not a foreign state, but each of our nations is plagued by those who would deny their many varied citizens their rightful share in their highest ideals that these nations have embodied. Whatever the faults and shortcomings of our respective founders, each set has provided us, Indians and Americans, with models of probity, decency, freedom, and justice that we ignore at the risk of our lasting loss.
Bravo @AatishTaseer for a long overdue reassessment of #Nehru, a figure educated by Theosophists & someone who could be viewed as India's Obama: a complex intellectual who fit in nowhere, and a man we desperately need today. His portrait hangs in our home.

I used to think India’s first prime minister was embarrassingly westernized. Now I see that he was one of our great thinkers.

On Trump & Reading: The Cave Man Speaks, or, Hucksters Don't Read Memos

Joe Scarborough's conjecture about whether 45 can read is an interesting issue to ponder. Consider: 45 has an MBA from Wharton if I recall correctly. He also writes an amazing number of Tweets for a man of such a high position. (These are not, so far as I can tell, ghost-written, unlike his books. See Tony Schwartz about the ghost-writing one of 45's books.) So, what has happened to 45's presumed ability to read? On one hand, it could be a lack of capability. That is, his mental illness--whatever we may label it (and yes, I'm presuming his "diagnosable")-- may include some organic components that limit his ability to focus sufficiently to read anything of any substance. Bad.
But the other possibility, perhaps in tandem with the organic theory, is that 45 doesn't believe that he needs to read. He already knows it all. And for all his failings, as one friend of mine described him, he is a "man of low cunning." Perhaps for a long time now in his career, he's gotten by strictly with the spoken word. He is a cave man not only in demeanor but in language as well. His lack of knowledge and sophistication are traits that he's cultivated to his advantage thus far in his life. He didn't expect to become president, he only expected to gain publicity for what was--and continues to be in his mind--a publicity stunt. He has been astonished that someone would want him to master new information when all he wants to do is practice his art (one-off salesmanship). A con artist doesn't need to read memos, he needs to talk it up. He doesn't need to learn what other thinks, he need only talk the mark into doing his bidding.
Of course, we've had presidents before who were not mental giants. But 45 takes us into completely uncharted territory. He is a cultural regression from the era of the written word back to the time before writing. For Trump, literacy is of limited value and orality is king. (What what would Walter Ong and Marshall McLuhan say about all of this?) Of course, 45's orality is only partial because he does Tweet, and he can read a text prepared for him. But in crucial ways, he represents a fundamental regression and a path back into the darkness for those who would follow his lead.
Beware, my friends.
Author Michael Wolff paints a harrowing portrait of Donald Trump.

Friday, January 5, 2018

Placing Bets: Gary Taubes on Diet

This is another article  by Gary Taubes. I've read a couple of his books ("Good Calories, Bad Calories" & "How We Get Fat and Why"; I will read "The Case Against Sugar"), and I read most of his articles that I can find. Why? As a science journalist, he exhibits two traits that I find crucial: he explores and understands the history of science (a human endeavor), and he cares by the means of science, which includes both what we might call "the philosophy of science" (e.g., Popper and falsification) & the protocols for obtaining scientific knowledge (e.g., observation, hypothesis testing, statistical analysis, etc.). In short, this means that he's very careful about reaching conclusions. But he also has to eat, and he has to make--as all of us a do--a choice about what to eat. In this article, he explains what bets he places and why. He doesn't claim to know the outcome of his bet, but I find his reasoning quite persuasive, and I will (to the limits of my fallible self) follow his betting pattern. Anyway, it's food for thought.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Trump's Biographer: Who Will Answer the Call?

This article (below), which actually provoked some sympathy from me for Jeff Sessions (no mean feat), also provoked a larger reflection. Who will be Trump's biographer? Who will provide an account of this incoherent man and our times? 

Two names jump to mind, but I have to assume they're not available: Robert Caro and Garry Wills. Caro wrote highly acclaimed The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York about Trump's fellow New Yorker, and of course he's written the magnificent multi-volume work The Years of Lyndon Johnson. But he's still working on the final volume (go, Robert, go!), and he's not so young. Wills is the author of terrific books about Nixon, the Kennedys, and Reagan, as well as John Wayne, Washington, Lincoln, Madison, Henry Adams, and St. Augustine. His work always provides deep insights. His classics background and (presumably) a knowledge of Suetonius (The Lives of the Twelve Caesars) could prove a useful referent. But, Wills, too, is not so young and he's now got a book about the Koran due out this fall. Clearly, Trump, told well, would prove a HUGE undertaking. We need someone who can take up this mantle. 

So who? This is a call for nominees: who has the insight into contemporary politics, the ability to doggedly pursue the story of a man that won't provide a pleasant journey and almost certainly won't have a happy ending. This biographer will also need mastery of psychology without psychobabble and exceptional literary skill.

Nominations, please.

President Trump’s dressing down of his attorney general at a meeting in May was the beginning of a tumultuous summer for the two men.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

The Twenty Years’ Crisis, 1919-1939 by E.H. Carr

E.H. Carr. Looks the part, doesn't he? 
Foundational text in IR & realist thought

This book was published in September 1939 as Britain was going to war with Germany over the invasion of Poland. The book, despite new editions and having remained in print since that time, makes few concessions to changed views or ideas. Thus, as a history, it’s a first draft, but it's best remembered as a foundational text of what was to become the academic study of international relations. Carr, after having spent around 20 years in the British Foreign Office, accepted an academic post in Wales, where he was working at the time of the publication of the book. The book serves as an outstanding introduction to international relations because whatever its shortcomings as history, it’s a brilliant exposition of the issues of international relations (IR), especially from the realist point-of-view.

Carr is a proponent of the realist view as opposed to what he termed the “utopian” view. In short, he attributed to the utopians the belief that treaties, tribunals, and public opinion would overrule the forces of “power” that create wars. This was the age, following the First World War, when the League of Nations was created and the Kellogg-Brian treaty (1928) that sought to outlaw war as a means of state action. As you know, neither of these worked well for long. Instead, following a long history of realist thought, Carr notes that the struggle for power marked relations between nations during this period, and unlike the situation within nation-states, where governments and laws held sway, relations between nations was one of relative anarchy marked by the use (or threat) of force.

Carr’s arguments and prose are concise and pithy. He understands the crucial differences between and the relation of politics and law. He also concedes the role of morality (however defined) in decision-making, and its effect on public opinion, which while not controlling, is a matter of concern to each government. In short, while a realist, he shows himself a realist who understands that power is more than simply the ability to deploy military force and win wars. He also understands that nations vie for status and power in many ways and that something often guides them other than a cold, hard rationality.

While I consider myself a realist in matters of international relations, I appreciate that other perspectives (liberal internationalism, constructivism, and so on) all have their value and provide insights into this complex field. For someone new to the field, I recommend Carr’s work as an introduction from the realist perspective; i.e., the ability of each state to exert power—primarily by the threat or use of force—is the most reliable guide to understanding the interactions between states. But Carr isn’t blind to other perspectives, either, which serves to enhance the value of his book.

For anyone seeking entry into the field of international relations, I can recommend this book. (I know it's assigned in graduate courses in IR.) Also, this re-issued edition with a preface by Michael Cox provides a wealth of background information about the book and Professor Carr, making it an especially useful edition.  

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Collingwood: "Man Goes Mad", with comments, Pt. 12

I call upon John Lukacs where I think Collingwood has left a void.
The love of our country, therefore, its hills and valleys, rivers and fields and woods, is not an aesthetic enjoyment of the ‘beauties of nature’. Indeed, our country as it stands is not a product of nature; it is a garden kept and dressed by generations of men, whose whole character and aspect have been moulded by their labour. Nor is it a patriotic pride in our nation’s history as written upon the face of the earth; it is something far deeper and more primitive than that, something into which national pride and national rivalries do not enter. It is an experience neither aesthetic nor political, but in the deepest sense religious.

            It may be called the worship of our land as terra mater, Demeter, our divine mother; it may be called the love of the land God has given us for our home; whatever it is called, it is a thing of religion, our share in the primitive religion of the earth-goddess and the corn-god, the religion of all agricultural civilizations. And upon the vitality of this religious feeling depends the vitality of our civilization as a whole.

. . . .

            Many crimes have been laid at the foot of the Industrial Revolution, but in a direct and immediate sense the ruin of the English countryside cannot be included among them. The scarring of its surface with mines and the building of mills were not in themselves fatal to it. Both mine and mill have a dignity of their own, not wholly discordant with the spirit of the country to which, after all, they belong no less intimately than barn and dovecote and oast-house. But nevertheless, our present outrages can trace their pedigree back to the beginnings of the machine age.

From here, Collingwood catalogs the economic decline of the countryside and its conversion into a virtual museum piece and space for new housing tracts. His complaint is not aesthetic, or so he claims, but it's clearly one in which aesthetics plays a prominent role. He concludes the entire essay with these words: 

Instinctively, we turn to the country when we seek for a renewal of emotional power, as Antaeus in the fable derived fresh strength from touching the earth: in walking and camping and fields sports we try not so much to exercise our bodies as to refresh our minds. But these are only drugs for a jaded civilization. The earth whose contact would heal us is no mere playing-field. It is the fruitful, life-giving soil from which in the sweat of our brow we win our bread: not a weekly cheque to be exchanged for bread, but consciously nourishes itself from roots in agriculture, is well. Cut off from those roots, it is a kind of madness which may endure for a time im a fervish and restless consciousness, but can have no lasting vitality. Of this we are beginning to be aware; we know that our civilization has in it a sickness of the mind, a morbid craving for excitement, a hyperaesthesisa of emotion, for which it offers no cure. There is a cure, if only we could get it: the deep primitive, almost unconcious emotion of the man who, wresting with the earth, sees the labour of his hands and is satisfied. 
I must admit the Collingwood's conclusion flummoxes me. I accept his paean for the land, and I, too, believe that our land, this earth, is now our garden. But Collingwood fails to link this intuition about the value of the land with the rise of illiberalism. England was at this time, along with the U.S., the most advanced industrialized nation in the world. It has certainly been industrialized for the longest time. So why did places like Germany, Spain, Italy, Russia, and Romania, opt for fascist or militarist regimes when they were much more tied to the land by a greater number of people linked to the land? If spoliation of the countryside and a concentration of the population in the cities should create the most and most significant (negative) emotional reactions--sicknesses--then why was England perhaps the sanest nation in Europe during this time? 

Also, how realistic is Collingwood here? This man was an academic, who certainly loved the outdoors. He was an accomplished sailor and did a great deal of archeological fieldwork. But he was not a farmer! Nor can or should we all be farmers (unless things really go to hell). He was a man of Oxford and London, not of the far reaches of the countryside. How is civilization to function? To wit, no cities, no civilization. 

Indeed, if Collingwood hadn't here (and elsewhere) written so eloquently about liberalism, one might find a hint of Blut und Boden (blood and soil) in this musings in this last section. As it is, Collingwood, in the first quoted paragraph, despite his dismissal of the feeling as one of patriotism, seems to be very close to the understanding of patriotism offered by John Lukacs. Lukac's patriotism contrasts with virulent nationalism, and it's a distinction that I believe Collingwood could have endorsed. Lukacs describes the difference: 

Patriotism is defensive; nationalism is aggressive. Patriotism is the love of a particular land, with its particular traditions; nationalism is the love of something less tangible, of the myth of a “people”, justifying many things, a political and ideological substitute for religion. Patriotism is old-fashioned (and, at time and in some places, aristocratic); nationalism is modern and populist. In one sense patriotic and national consciousness may be similar; but in anther sense, more and more apparent after 1870, national consciousness began to affect more and more people who, generally, had been immune to that before—as, for example, many people within the multinational empire of Austria-Hungary. It went deeper than class consciousness. Here and there it superseded religious affiliations, too.
John Lukacs, Democracy and Populism: Fear & Hatred (2005), 36.

I'd expected Collingwood to explore more deeply down a similar path and to tie-in this change in popular feeling that Lukacs identifies. As he left it---and remember, Collingwood did not publish this article--it lacks a satisfactory conclusion, one that ties together his concluding observations, which in the end are left standing alone. Perhaps he realized this, too. 

I'll be reading more Collingwood, including Essays in Political Philosophy and re-reading this The New Leviathan to try to fill in this gap. 

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Collingwood's "Man Goes Mad" with comments Pt. 11

The gorgeous English countryside; but now we must be grounded in place and planet

At this point in the essay, which Collingwood labeled as Part Three, the argument takes an unexpected turn into humankind's deepest roots and the (relatively) recent history of liberalism. 

At bottom, European civilization, with all its offshoots in America and elsewhere, is an agricultural civilization.
            As a matter of economics, this is a commonplace. Everyone knows that . . . our daily meals come from the soil; and that, if eating is the basis of life, agriculture is the basis of our civilization.
 A civilization, in order to be real, must have, as we might say, three dimensions. It must have complexity, or an elaborate system of responses to various situations, such as the need for nourishment, the need for human intimacies, the need for protection against enemies. It must have continuity, or identify with itself in its own past: each element in its structure must have grown out of something that was previously there. And it must have vitality: those to whom it belongs must believe in it, and refuse to part with it except in exchange for some new civilization which they can recognize as its legitimate continuation and heir.
            To these three dimensions of civilization correspond three dimensions of mental life. Its complexity is a function of intelligence, the wit or skill by which man, like other animals, invents his responses to new situations. Its continuity is a function of memory, the self-conscious knowledge of one’s own present as the outgrowth of one’s past. Its vitality is a function of emotion. If any of these failed, civilization would perish.

. . . .
 The question I am raising in this chapter is whether these emotions are in health or not. Of course, our civilization is not merely agricultural; it is much else besides; it is commercial, industrial, scientific, and so forth; and in order that we should possess it in its fullness we must feel strongly concerning all these developments of it. But that from which we have developed is not something past and dead, which we can now afford to ignore; it is the living root on whose life their life depends; and to care for them, a without any longer caring for it, would be like caring for our furniture and clothes while easing to care for our own bodies, or caring for victory in a scientific debate without caring for the truth. 

  1. Collingwood grew-up in the Lake District, not far from John Ruskin. Collingwood's father was a disciple of Ruskin's, and Collingwood was deeply steeped in that tradition and that of the ancient English countryside. In short, Collingwood's feel for the land and its ancient history was not gained through books; expanded and expressed by books, but known first at an experiential level. 
  2. Although not recounted in the quotes above, Collingwood notes some of the changes wrought by modernity; for instance, how beginning in the seventeenth century, Europeans began turning their primary interest from God to Nature, and the natural sciences that could help tame Nature. Of course, commerce and industry also grew more prominent. 
  3. Although he does not state it expressly (at least thus far in his essay), Collingwood seems to be adopting the perspective of those who identify a certain rootlessness and disconnection in modern life, with its cities and the increasingly hidden rhythms of Nature and an agricultural world. 
  4. As someone who advocates for "the garden" as a fundamental metaphor by which we should continue to live, I'm very sympathetic of Collingwood's train of thought here. Indeed, we're realizing more and more of the damage that human actions have done to "this best garden" in which we live. In Shakespeare's Henry V, the cardinal decries the spoiling of this "best garden" France by war and plunder. But now we realize (or should realize) that this "best garden" is no longer limited a certain nation or locale, but it is our entire Planet Earth. 

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Collingwood's "Man Goes Mad" with comments, Pt. 10

To what extent is Collingwood's understanding of (liberal) politics and illiberal politics consistent with that offered by Hannah Arendt? I think I discern some distinct similarities. 

In this post, we pick up from the point of Collingwood's question: "If the abandonment of all attempt to live by liberal principles is madness, why has this madness come upon us?

Liberalism, during the time of its growth and greatness, entirely transformed the inner political life of those countries where it took root. But it never applied itself seriously to the task of reforming their international relations. . . . What change there had been [in international relations], was for the worse: weapons more destructive, war more expensive, and national hatred (a thing hardly known in the seventeenth century) smouldering everywhere. The liberal state of the nineteenth century conceived itself as an individual among individuals, in that false essence of individuality which makes it synonymous  with mutual exclusiveness, and denies that between one individual and another there may be organic relations such that the welfare of each is necessary to that of the other. The liberal government which ‘trusted the people’ hated and feared peoples other than its own. It was this unnatural union of internal liberalism and external liberalism that led by way of international anarchy to the militarism of today. 
            If liberalism failed to affect international relations, it failed also in certain ways to affect the inner life of communities. A division was made, both in practice and in theoretical writings, between the public affairs of the community as a whole and the private affairs of its members. It was held that, whereas a man’s political opinions were of interest to the government, whose business it was to elicit them for its own guidance, his private actions, so long as he did nothing illegal, were his own concern. In practice this meant that his life as a ‘business’ man was under no kind of control by the state, so that the economic life of the community was an anarchy as complete as international politics, This was tolerable in theory only because of the extraordinary doctrine, learned from Adam Smith, that free pursuit of individual interest best served the interest of all; in practice it was soon found wholly intolerable, and the misery of the weaker, to which it gave rise, was the course of modern socialism. The militarism and the revolutionary socialism which threaten to destroy civilization today are a just punishment for its crimes in the years of its greatness. They spring, not from weakness or falsity in the principles of liberalism itself, but from the failure of our grandfathers to put those principles consistently into practice. Where these attacks show symptoms of insanity is the fact that they are directed, not against the incomplete application of liberal principles, but against those principles themselves. For three hundred years, civilized man has been working out a liberal system of political method, applying it, bit by bit, to the various parts of his corporate life. Now, because the application has not proved exhaustive, because  there are still some regions unreclaimed by this method, it seems that man has decided no longer to use it, but to throw it away as an ill-tempered child throws away a toy, to give up the attempt at living a political life, and to live in future the life of a gunman, the life of violence and lawlessness, the life which Hobbes, thinking he described the remote past only, and not he future, called solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.
My comments: 

  1. To what extent do Collingwood's remarks anticipate the argument of Hannah Arendt in her The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) that European 'imperialism' in the late nineteenth and early twentieth-centuries contributed to the rise of totalitarianism? 
  2. Is Collingwood too utopian here in complaining about the failure of liberal institutions to develop between nation-states? He'd surely noticed the failure of the League of Nations (and the success of the later United Nations is sketchy at best). Compare Collingwood's analysis to that of his contemporary (and fellow philosopher of history), E.H. Carr writing in The Twenty Years' Crisis: 1919–1939: An Introduction to the Study of International Relations (September 1939): Carr writes a manifesto of contemporary realism in the field of international relations that pooh-poohs international  institutions (for the most part) and debunks a good deal of what he argues (persuasively) were utopian projects always on the very of annihilation by power politics. I don't think Collingwood was naive, but I'm not sure how his alternative course of achieving a genuinely liberal regime in international relations would have succeeded. (In some measure, though, current problems notwithstanding, the EU seems to provide a model that Collingwood might endorse.)
  3. I think that Collingwood, like almost everyone else who's addressed the topic, has mistakenly attributed a faith in markets to Adam Smith that he never held. Smith's "invisible hand" was a metaphor he used only in passing in this Wealth of Nations, and his earlier (but underappreciated) Theory of Moral Sentiments says a great deal about the cultural foundations upon which capitalism could be laid. Smith was not a free market ideologue of the type that we find today. 
  4. Certainly, in the U.S. we see Collingwood's prediction coming true: the gunman is taking over. Note the images from Charlottesville. Guns represent violence and coercion, the opposite of politics, reason, and dialectic (dialogue). Collingwood, I argue, tracks Arendt very closely in the analysis of politics as the opposite of violence and coercion--at least politics as understood in a liberal (democratic) polity. 


Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Collingwood's "Man Goes Mad" with comments, Pt. 9

Marxism: “carrying too much dead weight in the shape of relics from the age in which it was born”
Here we further explore Collingwood's critique of Marxist socialism, which seeks liberal ends by illiberal means.
[I]t is a dangerous matter to surrender principles for the sake of expediency. Only in so far as a people has no liberalism in its bones, can a dictatorship flourish in it for however short a time; and every day of that time means a further weakening of all liberal principle throughout the body politic. [Collingwood here goes on to discuss Russia and contrast it the England [sic], France, and the U.S.] 
. . . . 
[Collingwood critiques Marxism as “carrying too much dead weight in the shape of relics from the age in which it was born,” and he identifies these (intellectual) relics.] 
            All these ideas [such as enlightened despotism, the need for crisis and revolution expressed in war, and “class war as the glorious consummation of political activity”] are obsolete: they have been exploded once for all by that very liberalism against which they are now used as weapons. Enlightened despotism as a political ideal has yielded to the conception of a people governing itself by a dialectic of political opinion. The dualism between a time of troubles and a millennium lying beyond it has yielded to the conception of conflict as a necessary element of all life and (as yet) not destroying its peace. The conception of war as at once glorious in itself and necessary to the achievement of human ends has yielded to the conception of war as something anti-political and, so far as it is merely war, merely evil. In all these three ways socialism, in spite of its affiliation to Hegel’s dialectic, shows itself radically un-dialectical, and it is liberalism that has proved the true heir of the dialectical method. 
            If the abandonment of all attempt to live by liberal principles is madness, why has this madness come upon us? . . . Nothing is gained by blame: something perhaps, by trying to understand. [325]
What I find most intriguing about this set of quotes is the passing remark that Collingwood makes when he writes that "conflict as a necessary element of all life and (as yet) not destroying its peace." Why did he say "as yet"? What worm in the bud may he have been thinking about? I have to suspect that given his deep knowledge of classical sources that he had in mind that democracies and republics have a history of instability. This is something that deeply concerned the American Founders as they drafted and argued in favor of the Constitution. This is what Francis Fukuyama wrote about in his Political Order and Political Decay ((his Pollyannish reputation--unfairly gained--notwithstanding). Peter Turchin and William Ophuls have also addressed this issue; in fact, it's not just democracies and republics that face this challenge of what I think might fairly be termed 'political entropy.' The challenge becomes, can a nation talk its way out of decay? I think so--but it's extremely difficult, at best, and some violence always erupts. Along with Peter Turchin, I believe we are in such a time now in the U.S. Perhaps the alarm among elites will be strong enough to rectify our current state of affairs, but this hope must balance against the anxiety and disharmony that have brought us to this state and the temptation to impose a new order from above. 

Monday, September 4, 2017

Collingwood's "Man Goes Mad" with comments, Pt. 8

Twins: hatred of liberalism, desire for war, leaders of totalitarian regimes, slayers of millions. It seems likely that Collingwood thought of both as he wrote "Man Goes Mad"

In the preceding post, Collingwood addressed the attack on liberalism
emanating from the right, in this post, we'll start his assessment of the attack on liberalism from the left.

The other attack on liberalism, from the left, complains in effect that liberalism, as it has actually existed, is not genuinely liberal at all, but hypocritically preaches what it does not practice. Behind a façade of liberal principles, the reality of political life has been a predatory system by which capitalists have plundered wage-earners. What is proudly described as the free contract of labour is a forced sale in which the vendor accepts a starvation wage; what is called the free expression of political opinion is a squabble between various sections of the exploiter class, which conspire to silence the exploited. Within the existing political system, therefore, the exploited class can hope for no redress. Its only remedy is to make open war on its oppressors, take political power into its own hands, establish a dictatorship of the proletariat as an emergency measure, and so bring about the existence of a classless society. 
            In one sense this programme is not an attack on liberalism but a vindication of it. The principles on which it is based are those of liberalism itself; and in so far as its analysis of historical fact is correct, it must carry conviction to anyone who is genuinely liberal in principle and not merely a partisan of the outward forms in which past liberalism has expressessed itself. The correctness of this analysis has been demonstrated by the sequel. The attack on liberalism from the right has actually been the reaction of privileged classes to this challenge from the left. 
. . . . 
But the socialist programme as I have stated it, though liberal in principle, is anti-liberal in method. Its method is that of the class-war and the dictatorship. Class-war is war, and the time is past when war could be waged as a predatory measure, in order to seize property or power held by another. That is the old conception of war, which, as we saw [earlier in this essay], no longer applies to the conditions of the modern world. Therefore, war means not the transference of property from the vanquished to the victor, but its destruction; not the seizure of political power, but the disintegrations of the social structure on whose soundness the very existence of political power depends.
[Collingwood next returns to his discussion of the inevitability of political conflict (contra Marx’s vision of political life after the revolution)]
Healthy political life, like all life, is conflict: but this conflict is political so long as it is dialectical, that is, carried on by the parties which desire to find an agreement beyond or behind their differences. War is non-dialectical: a belligerent desires not to agree with his enemy but to silence him. A class-conflict within the limits of a liberal political system is dialectical: one carried on in the shape of class-war is non-dialectical. The ordinary socialist conception of class-war is equivocal, slipping unawares from one of these meanings to the other.  

In this selection of quotes, Collingwood identifies the common bond in between the extreme Right and extreme Left in their critique of liberalism: their desire for war. For the Right, at least in Collingwood's time race war was the paramount rationale, although nationalism and religion could also be called into play. (Religion, perhaps even more than race, now seems to be the rallying cry for the extreme Right.) The Left prefers to pursue class warfare, although in its extreme contemporary manifestations, I'm not sure who that would play-out since a Marxian industrial proletariat doesn't exist in the West and the extreme Right in the U.S. has captured the allegiance of many wage-earners and the economically marginalized

A repeating a common theme of Collingwood's, and one that I'll repeat: war, whether cheered-on by the Right or by the Left, is the enemy of liberalism. As it's been said, free speech is always the first casualty of war. And it's not only speech that suffers the consequence.

The mutual admiration--indeed, demand--for war is a shared characteristic of the extreme Right and extreme Left. This demonstrates the limits of attempting to parse the array of political perspectives on a binary Left-Right choice.

Collingwood identifies why the extreme Left (socialists and Marxists) have shared some affinities. There are shared values in desiring to bring a wider, more inclusive set of groups, values, and individuals into society and political life. The chief difference becomes one of timing and cost. For the extreme Left change must come now even at the price of war (socially destructive civil war). Mainstream liberals--those who value constitutional government, the rule of law, and peace--won't pay the price of war and do not have to look beyond the last century to see the millions and millions of lives sacrificed needlessly for an ideal that was never close to attainment.

Also, by "mainstream liberals" I include traditional Republicans in the U.S., although their numbers are dwindling. This would be the same for Conservatives in GB or most continental conservatives. (The great divide in liberalism is between those who emphasize laissez-faire economics and want to limit government--with markets as the preferred mode of decision-making--and liberals who use government as a tool and prefer political decision-making over market-based decisions.